Like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc can be a ‘banker’ for many (most?) people in blind tasting. However, when sitting an exam, to get maximum points, it’s important to argue strongly and logically why a particular wine is indeed Sauvignon Blanc. Below are some general pointers that can help do this. Not all 10 pointers will necessarily be found in every Sauvignon Blanc and some pointers are only relevant if faced with a flight of Sauvignon Blanc. Also, this is by no means an exhaustive list–10 is just a nice number.
- Aromatic intensity
There’s nothing subtle about the smell of Sauvignon Blanc. It leaps out of the glass and straight up your nose. If you ever visit a winery while they’re transferring a tank of Sauvignon Blanc you can usually smell it before you walk in the door. Sauvignon Blanc is without a doubt an aromatic variety, thanks to its high level of impact aromas.
The number one impact aroma of Sauvignon Blanc. Giving the wine a green, grassy, nettley, capsicum/bell pepper aroma that all Sauvignon Blanc have to some extent. Although all Sauvignon Blancs have methoxypyrazines (and thiols–see below), Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has much more than those from anywhere else on the plant–one reason they’re so distinctive and so sought after.
- Thiols (aka mercaptans)
Another of Sauvignon Blanc’s impact aromas. Thiols can ber responsible for aromas ranging from grapefruit and passion fruit to flint, smoke and the famous cat’s pee. To know more about the chemical compounds that give Sauvignon Blanc its distinctive character, I highly recommend Jamie Goode’s book, The Science of Sauvignon Blanc
- Zesty, crisp, refreshing acid
Sauvignon Blanc naturally tends to higher levels of acidity. It is also typically grown in cooler areas and picked before it gets too ripe to preserve its crisp freshness.
- Pale colour with a green tinge
Sauvignon Blanc is typically a very pale colour and often has a greenish tinge. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the variety lacks the skin pigments that can give varieties like Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer a coppery tinge. Secondly, Sauvignon Blanc is typically handled anaerobically to keep it fresh and preserve aromatics.
- Bone dry
Despite its high acidity Sauvignon Blanc is typically dry (with the exception of late harvest/botrytised versions). More commercial examples might have up to 5-6g/L but these are still technically dry wines.
- Narrow alcohol range
Typically between 12% to 13.5% max. However, as lower alcohol wine gains in popularity examples of Sauvignon Blanc with an alcohol of less than 10% are creeping onto the market (something to be aware of when blend tasting)
- Limited winemaking
Being a distinctive, aromatic variety most winemakers want to preserve or enhance varietal characteristics–and this is the style that has been so successful. The vast majority of Sauvignon Blanc is therefore made using protective handling and without oak, MLF, or significant lees contact. However, to add layers of complexity (and give more ageability), there are examples of higher end Sauvignon Blanc vinified in new oak that can also have some MLF and lees work influence. There’s a nice discussion about this side of Sauvignon Blanc on The Drinks Business website.
- Youthful, early drinking style
Most Sauvignon Blancs are best drunk within in year or two of vintage while still young and fresh. With age notes of tinned asparagus or tinned peas can come to dominate the wine. As with anything to do with wine, there’s always exceptions. Botrytised and barrel aged Sauvignon (particularly those blended with Semillon) can age particularly well
- Global spread
Thanks largely to the success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, commercially significant plantings of Sauvignon Blanc are now found in the majority of wine producing nations. A flight of four wines from the same variety but different countries can only be a limited number of varieties–Sauvignon Blanc is one of them!